Ribs are undoubtedly one of the most sought-after cuts for smoking… And it’s no surprise why.
There’s something about a slab of meat on the bone that activates a primal, nearly carnivorous-like instinct in us…
But really, what keeps us going back is the flavor.
There’s nothing quite like sinking your teeth into a tender, juicy rib… Basted in its own layer of delectable, smoky fat.
Is there anything better?
That’s up for debate… But for now, let’s stick to smoking ribs on pellet grill.
We’ll cover tried-and-true tips from an expert, different style ribs to smoke, and a starter guide for how to cook ribs on pellet grill.
Let’s get smoking.
3-2-1 Rib Method: Are They the Best Ribs on a Pellet Smoker?
Before we begin in earnest… We will kick off this article with a bit of controversy.
As soon as you type “ribs on pellet grill” into Google… You’ll be presented with several pellet smoker recipes touting the “3-2-1” method.
For most, this method involves smoking the ribs for 3 hours, wrapping it and continuing to cook for 2 hours… And then slathering the ribs in barbecue sauce and cooking them unwrapped for the final hour.
Clearly, this is a popular method. It’s easy to follow, and many people recommend it.
But is it the best?
If you’re looking for the most deliciously addictive ribs possible… In our minds, the 3-2-1 method leaves a bit to be desired.
As our resident BBQ expert Ethan Fullenkamp put it, “Every single piece of meat is different. If 3-2-1 is the best way to go, that means that piece of meat is going to be done in 6 hours. It’s 3 hours of pure smoke and it’s time to wrap it, but that’s just not the case.”
Time isn’t the key variable here: it’s color. You want a dark, mahogany bark.
And every single rack of ribs will respond differently.
Your rack of ribs might be ready to wrap in 2 1/2 hours… Or they might be ready to wrap in 3 1/2, even 4 hours.
And if you don’t know what the key signs are to look for, the 3-2-1 method might lock you into a subpar result.
Of course, if you prefer this method, that’s great! However, it’s worth taking some expert tips into consideration… And comparing the results for yourself.
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Expert Tips for Smoking Ribs on a Pellet Grill
If you’re after the best BBQ ribs you can get on a pellet grill… It’s time to pay close attention.
These expert tips come straight from Ethan’s experience in both the competition barbecue world… And just years of backyard barbecues.
So you know you’re getting some good stuff here.
And whether you have a Traeger, Pit Boss, or Recteq grill… These tips will apply to any pellet smoker.
Remove the Silver Skin
We’ll start you off easy. If you’ve cooked ribs before, whether on a smoker or not… You might already know about this one.
But for absolute beginners… It’s an important step to make sure you complete.
Lamb, pork, and beef ribs will come with a layer of silver skin on the bottom of the bones.
If you don’t remove it before cooking… You’ll end up with a tough texture, and a bit less flavor in the final product.
Thankfully, silver skin is easy to remove and takes just a couple minutes of your time.
Simply wedge a butter knife under the bone side, pull the membrane up, and rip the entire section off with your hands. Easy.
Don’t Skimp on Seasoning
Underseasoning your ribs is arguably the biggest rookie mistake we see with smoked ribs on a pellet grill.
“I always say you can over salt, but you can’t over season. If you can see pork meat, you did not season enough”, Ethan shares.
That’s a simple metric to follow.
Don’t be afraid to overseason… And completely cover every square inch of that rack. The meat side, the bone side, and right down the sides of the ribs.
All that seasoning will give you flavor, of course. But it will also contribute to forming that incredibly crispy crust.
And since you’ll be smoking on a pellet grill… You actually need that seasoning to pull some extra weight.
“You are going to want more seasoning just because you’re not going to get as much smoke flavor on a pellet grill”, Ethan says.
Compared to lump charcoal or the wood from a pure offset smoker (FUTURE BLOG LINK)… Wood pellets simply don’t pump out as much smoke flavor. Hence, why it’s so critical to season properly.
So, what should you season with?
Well… That really comes down to personal preference and experimentation.
Ethan is a strong proponent of salt, black pepper, and garlic… And adding in a little butter or honey at the wrapping stage.
But paprika, yellow mustard, and brown sugar are other popular options… And you can add BBQ sauce, or even apple juice later if you’re going for a wet rib.
...And Let Your Seasoning Sit
So let’s say you’ve got your seasoning on. Ethan has some words of warning before you proceed to cook ribs on a pellet grill.
“Most people are like, ‘Ok, it’s seasoned. Let’s get it to the grill.’ Pause. Hold your horses. Be patient.”
It’s crucial to give your seasonings time to work their magic before you throw them on the pellet grill.
In fact, you should let your ribs sit for at least 15 minutes at room temperature before cooking… 20 minutes is even better. (Sometimes Ethan will even throw them in the fridge for an hour.)
“Your ribs should be almost wet by the time you get it on the grill, because that salt is getting into the meat and is making the meat sweat. You have to make sure that meat is incorporating all that seasoning because if you put it on the grill too soon, you’re going to dry it on the outside”, Ethan explains.
Trust us, your patience will be rewarded here.
Smoke as Low as You Can Go
If it’s your first time smoking ribs… Knowing what temperature to preheat your pellet smoker to is going to be an essential piece of information!
You’ll hear a variety of numbers thrown at you… But to get the most intense smoked meat flavor, Ethan recommends setting your grill to 180°F. (Or as low as you can go!)
“I’m going as low as I possibly can to get that smoke flavor first, as it’s harder to get smoke flavor with a pellet grill. I’ll let the ribs smoke at 180°F for a while, really let it absorb that smoke, bring it up nice and slow, and eventually I’ll kick the temperature up”, Ethan shares.
The more smoke flavor you can infuse into your ribs… The better.
Just keep in mind that this will affect the overall cooking time, crust formation, and when you wrap it.
Since you’ll be smoking at a lower temperature than most recipes… You will be waiting longer for that satisfying first bite.
But rest assured… They’ll be some of the best ribs you’ve ever had.
Peak Temperatures Depend on Your Grill Size
At this point, you might be a bit confused. Do you hold your pellet grill at 180°F for the entire cooking process?
Well, once you wrap your ribs… You’re not really getting any more smoke flavor. So at this point, you’re just trying to hit the ideal internal temperature for your ribs. (We’ll get to that.)
So after wrapping, you can crank up your smoker to keep things moving along nicely.
But how much you turn up the heat really depends on the size of your pellet grill.
For a grill that’s 28” or smaller, it’s best practice not to exceed the 225°F mark.
This is because “it’s a small cooking chamber, your heat source is going to be right there, and I don’t think you’re going to get exactly what you’re wanting if you cook higher than that”, Ethan explains.
If your pellet grill is 30” to around 48”, you can get away with turning the grill up to 250°.
And if you happen to have a massive pellet smoker that exceeds 48”… You could turn the heat up even more to 275°F, provided the ribs are far away from the heat source.
Water Pans are Your Friend
When it comes to getting delicious, tender ribs… Retaining moisture is the name of the game.
While not always necessary… If you really want to go the extra mile, strongly consider adding a water pan to your grill while smoking.
And as Ethan says, “A water pan is really going to help keep the overall cooking chamber a little more moist and prevent dryness.”
This tip is particularly beneficial if you’re working with a large-chambered smoker.
Adding a pan of water takes just a couple minutes of your time… So why not just throw it in?
Spraying with Apple Cider Vinegar: Is it a Must?
Most rib recipes will tell you to spray your ribs on the pellet grill every so often during the smoking process.
Is it always needed?
Well… It depends.
As Ethan put it, “When I check on it, I’m going to be checking for dryness. Is there any point where there’s dry spots on my BBQ? I don’t spray if it’s not dry.”
This is a key point.
Because if you’re spraying just because the recipe told you to… You can end up hurting the final result.
“If you’re spraying and it’s not dry, then you’re preventing the crust from forming. It’s too wet, and you’re not forming that nice crispy bark. You’re basically drowning it”, Ethan continues.
No one likes boiled ribs. So if your ribs aren’t dry… Don’t spray!
If you let your seasonings sit like we mentioned earlier… More than likely, you won’t have to spray your ribs at all.
But even if your ribs are looking a little dry… Don’t worry, spraying isn’t a sin!
Grab a spray bottle with 1 cup apple cider vinegar and 1 cup water… And spritz that sucker down.
Perfectly Timing the Wrap Stage when Cooking Ribs on Pellet Grill
So you’ve been smoking your ribs low and slow for several hours… And you’re wondering when it’s time to wrap.
There isn’t really such a thing as wrapping too late. But if you go too early… You’ll be shorting yourself on a stunning crust.
So what should you look for?
“You want that nice, really dark mahogany color. You also want to make sure you’re checking the seasoning. Is it tacked on? Rub it with your finger. If the seasoning is tacked on and the ribs are the right color, it’s time to wrap”, Ethan explains.
And if you’re going for wet ribs over dry ribs… At this stage, you’ll want to add butter, honey, or other wet seasonings.
Should You Wrap with Foil or Butcher Paper?
Here’s yet another point of contention in the BBQ world. What should you wrap with?
As usual, this really comes down to personal preference.
“With foil, you’re completely cutting off the smoke, and you’re not getting any more smoke flavor. With butcher paper, you’re getting a little more of a smoke profile”, Ethan says.
At the end of the day… Ethan usually just sticks with aluminum foil. It’s easier to work with, and a bit cleaner.
But if you want to pack in just a twinge more smoke flavor… You might prefer the butcher paper when making pellet smoker ribs.
Pellet Grill Outdoor Kitchen
Fall Off the Bone vs Bite Off the Bone
Everyone’s familiar with fall off the bone ribs… But believe it or not, that’s not the gold standard in the world of competition barbecue.
As Ethan said, “If I’m doing competition ribs, I’m not doing fall off the bone ribs. I’ll get last place every time. They’re not supposed to fall off the bone, they’re supposed to be bite tender”.
This may come as a surprise. (We know it was for us!)
So why are we even bringing this up?
Because depending on what kind of ribs you’re after… You’ll be looking at a different internal temperature for doneness.
If you’re going for competition style ribs, you’ll want to pull them off the smoker at 200°F – 203°F.
But for most of us, we’re going for fall off the bone… Which is typically reached at 210°F – 212°F.
And for another pro tip… Start getting familiar with what a perfectly tender rack of ribs feels like.
Do the bend test with a set of tongs. If your rack bends nicely… They’re done.
Also poke your ribs to ensure the fat is properly rendered. Your finger should sink right through, like it’s poking a bowl of Jell-O.
If both tests are passed with flying colors… Congrats, your ribs are done!
Now, if you want wet ribs… You do have just one more step before calling it quits.
Once your ribs are at 200°F – 203°F, open up the foil and create a boat-like shape. Slather up your ribs with sauce, letting the excess pool into your makeshift foil tray.
Let it cook a bit more on your pellet grill until it hits 210°F – 212°F… Which is another 5-10 minutes.
Then, you’ll be ready to rest.
Tick Tock... How Long to Rest?
The most painstaking part of making ribs has to be the resting period. Your pellet grill smoked ribs are done cooking… And now you have to wait to eat them?
It’s a first-world torture, for sure.
So you want to know… What’s the bare minimum amount of time you have to wait?
Ethan says, “Let it rest for at least 30 minutes, preferably for an hour or more”.
And as impossible as it may seem… The longer you wait, the better the final product will be.
So if you can stand it, go for that hour or more timeframe.
Starting to get a grasp on all this?
Now you’ll have to decide… Do you want to cook pork or beef ribs?
Beef Ribs on Pellet Grill vs Pork Ribs on Pellet Grill
It’s no secret that there are a ton of rib types out there. Baby back ribs, spare ribs, St Louis style ribs, beef short ribs on pellet grill… The list goes on and on.
And ultimately, no matter what type you choose… They’ll all pretty much be treated the same way.
The slight differences only come in when we’re talking about beef vs pork ribs.
Generally, pork ribs are more of a “blank canvas” when it comes to seasonings. You can pack on a ton of different flavors… And it will taste fantastic with just about anything you decide to put on.
Beef, on the other hand, has a lot more umami flavor that stands on its own.
For flavor, Ethan is a “Texas barbecue guy through and through. Even to the point where I don’t smoke with hickory, I use post oak, salt, pepper, and maybe garlic.”
Remember, don’t be afraid of seasoning! But with beef ribs… Simple rib rubs tend to perform better. (Same goes for a beautiful brisket.)
Now, what about wrapping?
As for color, we’ve already mentioned that stunning dark, mahogany color. That target is perfect for pork.
With beef ribs, you’re actually looking for a deep red, almost black bark on the exterior.
And while there’s some leeway on what temperature you finish pellet grill pork ribs at… You pretty much always want to pull beef ribs off the smoker at 200°F – 205°F.
As far as differences between how you treat pork and beef ribs… That’s all there is to it.
We encourage you to experiment with both proteins to see which one you prefer!
Ready to give some pellet smoked ribs a whirl?
How to Smoke Ribs on a Pellet Grill & Recipe
Since there are so many pellet grill rib recipe variations… We’re going to keep things a bit loose here, and focus on the technique.
That way, you can customize this recipe to your exact tastes… But also feel confident that the result will be fantastically tasty, too.
Pellet Grill Ribs Recipe
Prep Time: 25 Minutes (If you let seasonings sit)
Cook Time: Around 6 Hours (Highly variable depending on your meat and temperatures)
Total Time: Around 7-8 Hours (Including resting time)
- Beef or Pork Rib Rack of Choice
- Black Pepper
- Garlic Granules
- Optional: Additional Dry Rub Seasonings
- Optional: Wet Rub Flavorings/Sauces
- Prepare your rack of ribs. Remove the silver skin using a butter knife.
- Place your ribs meat side up on a cutting board, and season liberally with salt, pepper, and garlic granules on all sides. (Or other seasonings of choice.)
- Allow the seasonings to absorb into your ribs at room temperature for 15-20 minutes.
- While the seasonings settle in, preheat your pellet grill to 180°F.
- Once preheated and the seasonings have sat long enough, place your ribs on the grill grates, uncovered. Also add a water pan, if using.
- Allow to smoke for 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 hours, checking periodically on their process. You may spray some spots with apple cider vinegar if they appear to dry out.
- Once the bark has formed into a nice, dark mahogany color (or deep red/black for beef ribs), wrap the rack in either butcher paper or aluminum foil. You may add in additional flavorings at this time, such as butter or barbecue sauce.
- At this stage, raise the temperature of your smoker to either 225°F or 250°, depending on the size of your smoker. (Refer to section above.) Continue to cook the ribs for another couple hours, using a meat probe to keep track of the internal temperature.
- For bite-tender ribs, pull them off at 200°F – 203°F. For fall off the bone, remove them at 210°F – 212°F. Beef ribs specifically are to be pulled off at 200°F – 205°F.
- Do the bend test to ensure doneness, and poke the fat cap to ensure the fat is properly rendered.
- Allow your ribs to rest for 30 minutes at a bare minimum, but an hour or more is best. Keep them covered in your foil or butcher paper.
- After that, slice up your ribs with a nice sharp knife, serve with your favorite starchy carbohydrates… And enjoy your smoked ribs on pellet grill. (And keep plenty of paper towels handy, too!)
Cooking Ribs on a Pellet Grill Just Got Even Easier
Smoking ribs on pellet grill is already super-convenient compared to using a traditional offset smoker… But you can take the convenience yet another step further.
When you get into smoking as a hobby… You start to accumulate a lot of stuff.
Surely, you can relate.
Nitrile gloves, butcher paper, a variety of wood pellets, dedicated utensils for your smoker… It almost seems to appear out of nowhere.
And the thing is, you need all these items at your fingertips when you’re smoking.
Aside from being just plain annoying to lug these items in and out of your house… If you forget something inside, you can miss a critical moment in the smoking process.
Not to mention, there’s not exactly much prep space on your pellet grill stand. And with all the things you’re already juggling… It’s downright frustrating not having a place for everything you need.
All of these inconveniences are solved with an outdoor kitchen.
You’ll also have all the counter space you’ll ever need… With a comfortable place to rest your ribs, tools, and other necessities.
But that’s just the beginning.
An outdoor kitchen can double as an outdoor dining area… And you open yourself up to a world of other fantastic cooking appliances.
But even if you just stick to your trusty smoker… You’ll love the experience that much more with a functional kitchen island in your backyard.
So if you’re at all curious to see what that could look like…
Try our free online design tool. You’ll get a 3D render of your custom design presented to you in mere minutes… And we’ll go from there.